Fiery Words, Disputed Meaning
Few took notice last year when Muzammil Siddiqi, a Muslim leader of national renown, criticized U.S. support of Israel at a protest rally.
But when his comments resurfaced in a newspaper article after the Sept. 11 attacks, they sounded inappropriate, angry--even anti-American.
For the record:
12:00 AM, Nov. 15, 2001 FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Thursday November 15, 2001 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 3 inches; 81 words Type of Material: Correction
American Muslims--A Nov. 3 story in the California section on the public-relations war between American Muslim groups and their critics reported an attempt by a national Muslim group to discredit Sheik Muhammad Hisham Kabbani, a Muslim moderate, as a hypocrite. The Muslim group sent The Times a photograph of Kabbani’s spiritual mentor, Mawlana Sheik Nazim of Cyprus, lunching with the founder of Hamas, Shaykh Ahmed Yasine, in 1998. Supporters of Kabbani say the two were attending a gathering of Muslim leaders meeting to promote the peace process by discouraging violence.
“America has to learn,” Siddiqi was quoted as proclaiming to a crowd of cheering Muslims outside the White House. “If you remain on the side of injustice, the wrath of God will come.”
American Muslim leaders, who once had the luxury of directing such fiery comments to relatively small groups of like-minded adherents, are finding snippets of their most impassioned sermons resurfacing in the national media’s intensive exploration of Islam.
Most of this scrutiny is the result of a quiet fax war that has raged since the attacks: Pro-Israel or Jewish organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League, the Jewish Defense League and the Middle East Forum think tank have provided news organizations with reams of critical documentation on Muslim leaders in recent weeks.
These gleanings from surreptitiously recorded speeches at mosque events, protest rallies and other functions have shown Muslim leaders harshly denouncing American hegemony and supporting militantly fundamentalist Middle Eastern groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah. Both groups, widely associated with attacks on Israel in support of a Palestinian state, are on the U.S. State Department’s list of terrorist organizations.
Several of the Muslim leaders who have felt the sting of this war met with President Bush at the White House after the attacks. Siddiqi, a former president of the Islamic Society of North America, also read from the Koran at a Washington National Cathedral memorial.
Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum, insists that the Muslim organizations “are extremist groups in the guise of moderate groups.” Pipes, a regular contributor to the New York Post, has riled Muslims with articles like “Muslims Love Bin Laden” and his scathing commentaries on the Fox News Channel and on his Web site.
Muslim leaders complain that their words and views are being intentionally twisted.
In the case of Siddiqi’s wrathful remarks, more conciliatory comments he made in the same speech were not used in a Washington Post article and a Fox News broadcast.
After warning that the “wrath of God will come” to an unjust America, Siddiqi changed his tone: “But we want blessings for America. That’s why we want the conscience of America to be awakened and Americans to stand on the side of justice.” Siddiqi says the Post’s and Fox’s omission of those remarks distorted his meaning.
Some American Muslim leaders are now doing some soul searching--and word parsing.
Two days before the attacks, Hamza Yusef, a popular Bay Area imam who was among those who met with the president, gave a speech that included these prophetic words: “This country is facing a very terrible fate. And the reason for that is because this country stands condemned.”
A grainy video clip of Yusef’s speech appeared on the Fox News Channel on Oct. 2, prompting several commentators to question Bush’s meeting with him. The videotape was supplied by Steven Emerson, a Washington, D.C.-based documentarian who maintains a large database on Muslim organizations.
Yusef said in an interview that he has cooled his rhetoric since the attacks and has asked his Muslim colleagues to do the same.
“There has been too much anger; we have had a lot of anger,” Yusef said.
Nevertheless, Yusef says his comments were not much different than what many Baptist preachers might shout from their pulpits every Sunday.
“Until Sept. 11, the audiences we talked to were very familiar . . . to students who know me and know who I am and are able to put it into context,” Yusef said. “It’s religious rhetoric.”
Abdurahman Alamoudi, a former president of the American Muslim Council, a lobbying organization, and an advisory board member of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, appeared with Siddiqi at that Washington protest rally, proclaiming: “Hear that, [then-President] Bill Clinton! We are all supporters of Hamas. I wish to add that I am also a supporter of Hezbollah.”
Those remarks were quoted two weeks after the September terrorist attacks in a Salon.com story--an article that was the catalyst for a series of other stories and news broadcasts critical of Muslim leadership.
Alamoudi, who helped institute Muslim chaplains in the U.S. military and organized the first Muslim holy days at the White House, says he now regrets speaking so plainly.
“I should have qualified what I said. I should have said that we should support Hamas and Hezbollah in the effort for [Palestinian] self-determination.”
Alamoudi says he distinguishes between Hamas’ and Hezbollah’s social welfare programs for Palestinians and the suicide bombings and other attacks on Israeli civilians. He also blamed the “Jewish media” for stirring up the controversy after the attacks.
Some Jewish groups have indeed been at the forefront of some of the most recent criticism. Anti-Defamation League Information Center director Gail Gans said her organization has been working to “stay on top of extremist statements and know where and when they are said, and who’s responsible for saying them.”
Gans said Muslim leaders are involved in a rhetorical guerrilla war to “make equivalences between terrorism and the Israeli government protecting its citizens. There’s a tendency to try to explain away terrorism by justifying it.”
Muslim leaders like Alamoudi say they are being attacked simply for being critical of American support for Israel. They say they are unwilling to condemn every aspect of groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah.
“The problem with organizations like these is that they have different elements,” said American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee spokesman Hussein Ibish. “There’s a social service element which is engaged in . . . running hospitals and schools and orphanages. And there is a political wing. And there is a military wing.”
After The Times ran a sympathetic profile of a local Muslim doctor struggling against religious bias the week after the attacks, ADL regional director David Lehrer wrote a letter to the editor accusing the doctor of supporting a charity that was under suspicion of funding terrorism. The doctor was a new board member of the Texas-based Holy Land Foundation. Lehrer’s letter said the foundation was on a “State Department watch list” and had been raided by federal agents a week before the attacks.
The doctor, Riad Abdelkarim, sent a letter of his own calling Lehrer’s comments “cynical and disingenuous.” The truth is murkier.
Holy Land has been under federal investigation for years, but the State Department says no such “watch list” exists. And Holy Land’s offices were not raided; the raid occurred at the headquarters of InfoCom Corp., a separate organization whose chairman sits on the board of Holy Land.
Such shades of gray are common in the rhetorical parrying between Muslims and their critics.
In congressional testimony, documentarian Emerson has accused Nihad Awad, founder of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, of supporting Hamas and his organization of being a front for the group. Awad acknowledges that he said he “preferred Hamas to the [secular] Palestine Liberation Organization.” But he says that was in 1994, before Hamas began its “military” actions.
“Then, Hamas was a resistance movement that had not conducted suicide bombings that were known,” Awad said. “And they were not classified by the State Department as a terrorist organization.”
The federal government did not designate Hamas a terrorist organization until 1997. But as early as 1992, the State Department included Hamas in a report on terrorism and described its use of “terrorism to pursue . . . an Islamic Palestinian state.”
The war of faxes has also ensnared a Muslim moderate, Sheik Muhammad Hisham Kabbani, who has been critical of American Islamic leaders.
Kabbani, founder of the Islamic Supreme Council of America, once said at a State Department forum that 80% of U.S. mosques were run by “extremists.”
In recent weeks, as Kabbani was quoted more widely, a national Muslim group tried to discredit him as a hypocrite. It sent The Times a photograph of Kabbani’s spiritual mentor, Mawlana Sheik Nazim of Cypress, lunching with the founder of Hamas, Shaykh Ahmed Yasine, in 1998.